three things: mirrors, growing, and zen

FEED: When my little family and I lived in New Britain, CT almost 30 years ago, in what was clearly the ghetto part of that otherwise-rich place, I got a chance to get away for a bit. We had three tiny kids at the time, all under the age of 5, and we were planning to move to Virginia. My then-husband had already been there scouting places to rent, and he suggested that I go, that he would stay with our kids.

even after driving over that bridge hundreds of times, the view of Manhattan never fails to take my breath away

This was such a glorious thing—just me, after such terrible hardship, a solo road trip (and I adore road trips). And not only that, I would drive through New York City for the first time in my life. I left around 4am, I think, and as I came down through the scary (to me then, and in the dark) Bronx and went over the beautiful George Washington Bridge, with all of Manhattan spreading out to my left, this song came on the radio.

It was popular at the time and I really loved it, and I think it probably came on the radio a dozen times on the 6.5-hour drive, or at least it felt that way. So even now, when I hear the song I just get filled with the same soaring sense of freedom, and the lyrics poke at me too. If you wanna make the world a better place, you’ve got to look at yourself and make a change. Lots to think about there. But at the moment I am just being fed by the beat and urgency of the song, and by the memories it holds for me.

SEED: Over the last couple of very easy years of my life, I’ve often written about feeling the complacency of it, and about wanting to use that easy time to challenge myself, to get out of my comfort zone, maybe to learn something new.

Well. Then the presidential campaign came along and all that ease went away, and now the fact that he’s in office and trying to destroy everything — no more complacency here, or anywhere else. As it all started unfolding, I often felt so many levels of terrible, including some inner levels, some frustration and personal hopelessness: I don’t know what to do! I don’t know how to do anything about any of this! I’m not an organizer! I don’t know anything about lobbying, I don’t know how to do any of this! I don’t know how the details of the government work! How can I / what do I / where do I / I can’t!

At one of the marches a speaker said something about this, that it doesn’t matter if we don’t know what to do, learn how to do it. It’s all learnable. Dig in, investigate, read, ask, poke around, assume roles, make things happen! I had to keep reminding myself of that because it’s not my instinct at all. Hell, after I had already made a sophisticated quilt by hand I thought I didn’t know how to quilt so I took a beginner’s quilting class. THAT IS SO ME.

It has been very frustrating, having all those feelings going on at the same time the frustration and fears about what was happening in the government were so overwhelming. It was just too much, too many sources of fear and upset, and yet there was nothing to do but keep flailing in the muck.

Yesterday I realized that I’ve learned a lot. I have really gotten somewhere with how to do these things. It’s less confusing, it’s less impossible-feeling. I have yet to organize a march, and still wouldn’t even know how to begin, but I do now know that I could figure it out. My understanding of things has become more sophisticated. I’ve paid attention somehow, in the midst of all the overwhelm.

And so this terribleness was also an opportunity, as terribleness usually is. And I guess the other thing about terribleness opportunities is that no matter how many times you go through that process, the terribleness feels so terrible that you can’t remember the opportunity part. That’s true for me, anyway. I’m by no means anywhere with it except to say that I’ve noticed the opportunity of it now. There is a very real ALIVENESS to being confused, to doing something new, to having to figure out a new language and new modes and slowly seeing that you have changed as a result.

READ: My friend George gave me a daily Zen calendar for Christmas — the only Christmas gift I received, actually — and as I pulled off all the days’ pages that passed while I was in NYC, two caught my attention:

“Nothing is more real than nothing.” ~Samuel Beckett

“Just try to feel your own weight, in your own seat, in your own feet. Okay? So if you can feel that weight in your body, if you can come back into the most personal identification, a very personal identification, which is: I am. This is me now. Here I am, right now. This is me now. Then you don’t feel like you have to leave, and be over there, or look over there. You don’t feel like you have to rush off and be somewhere.” ~Bill Murray

That Beckett is so Beckett, right? It’s the kind of thing you can say to yourself and then pause to see what it means and then just get kind of lost. Is nothing real? Is there a realness to nothing? AAARGH! And I don’t know if the second quote is by that Bill Murray, but doesn’t it just give you a sense of calm?

I’m off to babysit wee Lucy this morning, so my day is off to a great start, and I hope you have something wonderful in your day too. xoxox

three things: the American West, dancing in the living room, and Mexican literature

FEED: Since the new government seems intent on destroying the physical world, I need to remember this:

View of Valley from Mountain, “Canyon de Chelly” National Monument, Arizona (Ansel Adams)

I have camped in that canyon and gotten horribly, blistery sunburned riding mountain bikes over a Fourth of July holiday weekend, but the place was gorgeous. There was a new moon, so the vast, black night skies were filled with the Milky Way and I will never forget lying there watching it wheel through the enormous sky. The world can be so so beautiful, and it’s definitely worth fighting for.

SEED: Yesterday was a cold, brilliant day. Even though he has a terrible cold, Marc thought it was important enough to add another body to the crowd that he joined me at the LGBT Rally at the Stonewall Monument in the West Village. After the rally, I made a big pot of Moroccan chickpea soup, and while I was tending to it, this song came up on my playlist (“Only Love,” by k.d. lang — give it a play while you’re here, it’s such a beautiful song):

Although I’m not a very good dancer at all, I love to dance and do it at home when I’m alone. My first husband used to dance with me in the living room and I’ve missed that because Marc will not dance. Not ever, not anywhere. But there’s something so sweet about just dancing with your husband in the midst of your home. I understand Marc; like me, he is a very socially anxious person and in fact he’s much more socially anxious than I am. This is a place we can connect with each other. But the day had been so lovely, and the soup smelled so good, and so I grabbed him and dragged him up, put one earbud in his ear and one in mine and put my arms around him and told him we were going to dance. “All you have to do is just hang on to me and sway to the music a little.” He felt anxious, I could feel it in him, but I closed my eyes and held on tight and felt the music and cried.

Maybe, slowly, with patience, I can help him grow a little. That’s what it’s really about, spending a life with someone.

READ: In this time of nationalism and closing of borders (and not just in this now-insane country, of course) it’s time to read translations. I love reading translations, and some of my favorite books are translated, but how is it that I’ve never read a Mexican writer? Lithub posted a list of 15 books by Mexican writers and nope, haven’t read a one. Have you read any of them? Or another one that’s not on the list? I’d love to get a recommendation if you have one.

Foreign films, watch those too. My friend Jeff is on a Pedro Almodovar spree (I need to get on that spree too and rewatch them all….). So, while we’re at it, do you have a favorite Mexican director? Actor?

I’ll say one thing about this time of fear and insanity. I feel very much alive. I feel very connected to other people. I hate the cause, but love this specific effect. Happy Sunday, y’all. <3

my own pink cardigan

My mother was the black hole of maternal care. We kids made our own dinner (“fix-your-own,” which meant cereal every single night…which, to be honest, we didn’t mind); we made our own school lunches even when we were too little to do that, using whatever we could find (bits of old food wrapped in aluminum foil and gathered in an empty plastic bread bag); and we were on our own if we were sick (and woe be on to us if we were sick enough to warrant a visit to the doctor, because we’d better be really sick or we had just wasted her time and money and there would be a price to pay).

One of my painful childhood memories happened when I was in second grade, at lunch. I was sitting in the cafeteria eating my miserable little lunch, and an outcast already because I had the wrong kind of lunch, when I noticed a girl from my class sitting at a nearby table. Her lunch, as always, was in the proper brown bag, and her sandwich was wrapped in plastic, not foil. She had an apple and a cookie — all A+ according to the code of normal. But that day she also had a thermos filled with hot soup, and she was wearing a new pink cardigan.

I turned to my friend, the other outcast, and said, “Hey, Pamela, why does Jennifer have that thermos today?”

“She’s been sick,” scabby Pamela said, “so her mom made her some soup and got her a new sweater.”

I was instantly sick with envy. What makes her so special, I thought with such bitterness it hurt me. What makes HER so special. I just wanted to die, I really did, and even writing this post has filled my eyes with tears.

It was really all wrapped up in that pink cardigan. It felt to me like the loudest emblem of love and care — a new, soft bit of pinkness wrapped around the girl, keeping her warm and loved, reminding her of her mother’s care. And who had hot soup?! No one. No one but Jennifer, that day, food to help her feel better and get well. The cardigan made me imagine that while Jennifer was sick at home, her mother had tucked a blanket around her, stroked her head, fed her.

I used to recall this memory once in a while and the envy still felt present, but mercifully the bitterness faded a long time ago. This morning I recalled it again, unbidden, when I realized that I had metaphorically wrapped my own pink cardigan around myself. That same tender care, that same love, that same desire to comfort and tend, I figured it out. I’ve got this covered.

contradictions

Time to snip the tiniest little bit from Leaves of Grass (go here to read it in full if you don’t own a copy, but I recommend you have your own copy — with you, always):

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Even though I love this poem, and this bit of it specifically, and even though I believe it as one of the truest things I know, I still struggle to remember it, because my multitudes frequently contradict each other and pull at me and my sense of identity: I’m this. I’m that. No wait, I’m this.

blue moonThe evening of the blue moon, I had an extraordinary experience and I’m not sure how to talk about it. I’m not even sure of the meaning yet, so I’m not ready to talk about that aspect either. But essentially it was a deeply spiritual experience, and it required me to be open to the world in a specific way that has sadly become uncomfortable to me since I entered my PhD program back in 2000. It was led by a friend of mine who has strong Native American Alaska Athabascan heritage, and it drew, I believe, on many of the rituals and songs of her culture. Her incredible use of her drum and rattles, and burning sage, and whooshing wind from a feather fan, and her amazingly strong voice singing and calling — all while our eyes were covered as we sat outside in the dark — was disorienting and deeply personal and moving.

As I drove home later, thinking about everything that had happened within me, I was trying to reconcile being a logical, rational person trained in the scientific method, and a spiritual person open to the larger world that goes far beyond that. I found myself thinking, “Oh, I’ll be that flowing spiritual person.” [silly] The funny thing is that I have no problem appreciating the flowing-together of science and spirituality. Richard Feynman said,

I have a friend who’s an artist…He’ll hold up a flower and say…”I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty…I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more…I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty… The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color…the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds.

I believe that! With all my heart! It’s my own very regular experience, even. I’m not sure why my default automatic response is to insist on either-or categories, when a moment’s reflection reminds me that there are so few absolutes I believe in that I can’t even think of one at the moment.

It’s funny how my mind moves out to the superficial when I encounter a conflict like this — kind of ‘presentation of self’ stuff. I’m pretty smart and thoughtful and love talking about big things, love extremely intelligent people, and feel most comfortable there. So when I came face to face with my openness to a more spiritual world, my superficial thoughts were about how to dress. Loose, flowy, specific jewelry and hair vs more tailored. Isn’t that silly? I think it’s just a top-level entry to bringing myself to thinking about how these different ways of approaching the world can live together in a deeper way. My kind of clothes with specific jewelry and hair. Rational and intelligent and scientifically minded and open and understanding Big Things that you come to through ritual and guides.

One clear thing that happened in that experience kind of cracked my heart, and I can talk about it. So very clearly I saw that I’m a tightly closed person, tense, scared. It surprised me (and it surprised me how true it is) because this is an area in which I have grown  so much. When I started therapy in New York back in 2005, my primary goal was to stop being a terrified person in the world. So when you are at, say, 0% of something, 50% looks amazingso dazzling you can hardly believe it. But it’s only 50%, it’s not time to stop. I have a lot of opening to do. I have a lot of guards to let down.

Perhaps my friends and loved ones would argue with me, no, you’re not closed, you’re open. But maybe they wouldn’t (except for Dixie of course, who loves me with soul-filled eyes and heart). Maybe they’re aware of my tightly guarded borders. Luckily I have people in my life who model the very parts of myself I’m struggling to become and remain open to. We’re all our own unique combination of bits, and contradictions, and so none of my models have the same amalgam of things I do, but that’s more than fine.

Thanks, beautiful blue moon, and thank you, my friend, and there’s nothing to wait for anymore. Time to do it.

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who are you?

So many things become clear and obvious the older you get. The problem is that it would be much better if they were clear when you’re younger. Stupid time.

I wish we all understood from the time we’re tiny that all we can be is who we are. That that’s who we’re here to be, what we’re here to do. That trying to be like others is a waste of time — but more, a loss. I wish I had understood that, but that’s OK. I think I understand it now.

Before I Leave the Stage, Alice Walker

Before I leave the stage
I will sing the only song
I was meant truly to sing.

It is the song
of I AM.
Yes: I am Me
&
You.
WE ARE.

I love Us with every drop
of our blood
every atom of our cells
our waving particles
—undaunted flags of our Being—
neither here nor there.

Last month at book club I was telling the story of my great-aunt Bea. Her father sold her, when she was 14, to an older, horrible man for the price of a horse.  A few years later, Bea shot her husband when he was crawling through the kitchen window threatening—once again—to kill her. She told him that if he came in through the window she’d shoot him. He came in through the window. She shot him, on March 5, 1946. Bea was tried and found not guilty; in the small north Texas town where they lived, everyone knew her husband and knew Bea’s story. She certainly was not guilty.

bea story

Bea was an original, in every way. She was a barrel rider in the rodeo (not so unusual in North Texas). She dressed and walked like a man (extremely unusual in North Texas in the 1950s and 60s). She said exactly what she thought and didn’t care what you thought about it (for a woman in the south/Texas, very usual). She raised her son alone, then lived with her sister for a few decades before getting married again . . . her choice, this time.  Who is it we remember when we think of that family? The quiet, meek women who did exactly and only what was expected of them? Who shaped themselves to the roles they were assigned by family, by their time, by their culture? Nah. In my family we remember Bea. We talk about Bea. And it’s not about committing murder — it’s not about being a “bad girl.” It’s just about being very true to who you are inside, and just being that, as Bea did.

actingWhen I was a girl, I was very inward and quiet. Very serious. I learned to talk very fast and smile smile smile and accommodate myself to stay safe, and that became a habit. But it always felt like acting (acting!). It served me well in so many ways, but it did not feel like me. Now I find myself returned back to myself, and coming back inward. Coming back to quiet, and serious. The thing is, if you’ve been untrue to yourself and then find your way back to being who you truly are, some people might not like it. And maybe it’s just because it’s different, you’re not who they knew you to be. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

Be who you are. Be who you are. Know who that is, and be it. The world needs you to be that, it’s really what you came here to do, to be. If you just live long enough, you might figure out that you already knew the important things.

spin

OK, so this is NOT one of those idiotic ‘glass half full’ things. I had quite the little rant about that dumb idea during my nightmare period of late 2012-2013. But it is about the complexity of experience and the multitude of frames available.

In the last several months, it has not been uncommon for my Austin friends to comment on how much I have changed since they met me. There is, of course, the dramatic evolution through and past the extreme grief I was in when they met me. I was numb, crying, haunted, devastated, a kind of ghost. Grieving, suffering. So, as people do, I worked my way through all that and slowly cried less often. Slowly laughed more easily and with less guilt about it. Starting with only Katie and Trey as my anchors, I built a rich life, with poet friends and book friends and soul friends. I found my circle of women. That was the ordinary transformation of a person starting over and coming out of grief. But I also learned how to live alone, which has been the most important piece of my transformation, I think.

In a way, this part of my life has been like the very best adolescence. Ordinary adolescents are figuring out who they are, they’re trying on this and that, they’re experimenting and trying and failing and trying. Lucky me, I get to do all that but without the raging hormones, without the adolescent frailty and uncertainty, and with my own resources, my own home, my own income, control over my own life with no need for anyone’s approval or permission. That’s the important part, and the part I have never been able to do in a relationship. That’s all on me — no one has ever demanded that I cower and give in. I do that, I give myself away before I even realize what’s happening. I need to focus next on not doing that when I am with Marc.

red-hibiscusBut the transformation my friends see is deep in me, and real, and I feel like a life-size flower. I really do. It’s funny that the image I always have, when I think about that, is a hibiscus. (My outer right calf is tattooed with hibiscus and sunflowers [here’s the post I wrote about why I chose it, and a picture of it is in the post].) When I wake up in the mornings, as I move through my days, when I climb into my wonderful bed each night, I feel like a huge flower in full bloom. It’s extraordinary.

When I bend over to pick up something, I feel the strong muscles in my back. I feel the bending over with my flat, straight back, I smile that my hamstrings are loose enough to keep my legs straight when I touch the floor. When I head to the yoga mat, I think about this opportunity to become stronger (instead of grim-faced ‘exercise to lose weight’), more balanced (literally), more flexible. When I hold plank, I recognize my abdominal muscles are becoming stronger (instead of dreading having to do it because it’s good for me). When I hold down dog, I press my hands into the floor, lift my butt, push my thighs back, lower my heels, and marvel at my body and what it can do (instead of wondering how much longer this is going to go on and hoping no one is looking at my fat rear end and thinking about what I wish I could have for dinner but I won’t because crap I am once again trying to lose weight).

That frame makes such a difference in helping me head to the mat every day, I’m telling you. It’s not a chore, it’s not something I ‘have’ to do, it’s not something to cross off my to-do list, it’s not [sigh] exercise dammit. Ah, it’s a chance to become stronger, such pleasure. Lucky me, another day to work at becoming stronger.

When I make my dinner, it’s a chance to pick and prepare food that helps my body be strong and healthy AND a chance to be as creative as I can be, a chance to make something that tastes so good I want to slap myself. It’s not diet food, it’s not about how little I can eat of boring food so I can lose weight (or keep off the weight) and then get right back to my ordinary eating. It’s about the pleasure of taking good care so I can be strong and healthy.

WHAT???? Me? Who is this woman?

And the funny thing is that these frames don’t come afterwards, as a way to reconcile myself with something I don’t really want to do. I have no doubt I’d tried that reframing dozens of times in my life and I guess I just wasn’t there yet. I guess I didn’t believe myself when I’d think those things. Maybe the issue is that now it’s not RE-framing, it’s simply what is for me. So I am not suggesting anything for you, you have to find your own way — it’s all an inside job, every bit of it — but I share what is for me, in case you feel a shiver of recognition inside yourself.

Those [re]frames surely contribute to keeping me grounded, but they aren’t by themselves responsible for the transformation. But I think being grounded, and having solitude and the opportunity to take up ALL the space, has let me be more daring with myself, and helped me be less timid in general, less timid about who I am, and less afraid of the world, somehow.

Gosh living alone is thoroughly glorious. It is. Of course I’m not alone at all, I’m surrounded by love and affection and companionship and all the social stuff I could possibly want — and I see Marc 12 days/month, and we travel together. (I secretly think I have the most perfect life anyone could ever have.) But here I am, alone in this beautiful, comfortable place, and I can blast a song that fills me with joy and dance like a lunatic all around my house until I can’t breathe. I can wake up at 2am and decide I want some eggs, and turn on all the lights and bop into the kitchen and scramble some luscious orange-yolked Parker eggs (thank you every day, sweet Karyn), then take a bubble bath with candles, and then sit in bed and write as long as I want with all the lights on if I’m enjoying the deep middle of the night. I can decide I want to completely change the way I eat and just do that, exactly as I wish. I can decide I want to do yoga twice a day and just leave my yoga mat out in the living room because there is no one who will be bothered by that.

And the toilet seat is always down.

a convergence

I love this picture of her
I love this picture of her

A few days ago I heard parts of Gabourey Sidibe’s speech at the Ms Foundation for Women’s gala. There are so many good parts of it, including her daily power salute to pictures of her aunt and Gloria Steinem as she left for school and returned home, but it’s her beautiful words about transforming obstacles into strength that really stopped me:

“If I hadn’t been told I was garbage, I wouldn’t have learned how to show people I’m talented. And if everyone had always laughed at my jokes, I wouldn’t have figured out how to be so funny. If they hadn’t told me I was ugly, I never would have searched for my beauty. And if they hadn’t tried to break me down, I wouldn’t know that I’m unbreakable.”

She says this too when someone asks her how she is so confident — and turns it around and wonders why no one asks Rihanna how she is so confident.

In four sentences she said what I’ve stumbled to say since 2000, when I got my spine tattooed. Because of the challenges I had when I was growing up, I had to think hard about things most people don’t. What does it mean to be beautiful? What is wisdom, strength, courage, endurance, metamorphosis, truth, pain? My life led me to think for many years about those things, and that’s what the tattoos honor. So her words have been on my mind the past few days, in and out of focus as I’ve had time to think.

And then last night was my wonderful poetry group. Ah, I love that group so much, it is a regular source of happiness and pleasure. I’d apparently lent one of the members a book and she returned it last night — Mary Oliver’s 2007 volume titled Thirst. When the group left, I picked up the book and thumbed through it, noting the few pages I’d dog-eared, and was laid low by this one, an old favorite:

The Uses of Sorrow
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

So much wisdom in those two sentences — easy wisdom and the more complicated and difficult kind. There’s that glib, trite sentence people toss out without really understanding it: What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger! Um, yeah, it does . . . sometimes. Sometimes it doesn’t, for some people. Some people are knocked down and simply can’t find their way back to life, to themselves, to where they started, much less to stronger. I’ve known people who were just looking for their excuse and it found them, but I’ve known more people who were knocked down, who received their box full of darkness, and wanted to become stronger but the fall was too hard, the box too dark.

So yeah, sometimes what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The general idea is sound, and challenges do give us a chance to grow and learn. When everything’s just great and the engine’s firing on all pistons and boy you’re on top of the world, I don’t think you grow. You enjoy it, I hope! You relish it, you find gratitude for it, but I don’t think you grow.

For many years I tried to say — and mean it — that I am really grateful for everything that happened to me in my life, even the unthinkable stuff, the unbearable stuff, the cruel and unfair stuff. I wanted to say it and mean it. On occasion I’d say it with a quiver, trying to mean it, but I wasn’t there yet.

I think I have finally gotten there. Someone once gave me a box of darkness, and I finally understand that it was a gift. It was. If I hadn’t been told I was garbage, I wouldn’t have learned how to find my worth. If they hadn’t told me I was ugly, I never would have searched for my beauty. And if they hadn’t tried to break me down, I wouldn’t know that I’m unbreakable. I wouldn’t have understood as deeply as I do that the whole point is to keep getting up. To get up one more time than you’re knocked down. I wouldn’t have had so much experience getting up again, so I wouldn’t have learned to trust that I can do it. If the darkness hadn’t seemed bottomless, I wouldn’t have learned my own depths.

WIPs

wipLike any hobby, knitting has its own jargon and acronyms. Knitters talk about their FOs (finished objects) and WIPs (works in progress). When I was trying to figure out what tattoo to put at the very bottom of my spine in the empty space I’d left, I was mulling it over with my son Will one day and he suggested that I find the characters for “work in progress,” and just get the outlines of the characters. I loved that so much I nearly did it, and the idea still tickles me.

I’ve mentioned her before — I have an old friend with a very traumatic childhood, and now she has this laugh that stops people with its beauty. It somehow comes from way down inside her and there’s a feeling of it bubbling up from a deep well. Once someone told her they wished they had her laugh and she stopped cold and said, “I earned this laugh, you can’t just have it.”

Yesterday I was thinking about her, and about works-in-progress, and me and everyone I know. But I can’t talk about others so I’ll do all I can, which is to think about my experience in a broad enough way that it applies to you, too. So I’m halfway through my life and I’ve learned a lot of things along the way. I’ve done a lot of work on who I am, I’ve tried to change things that hurt me or others, I’ve tried to build up parts I found helpful, I’ve spent a lot of time and money figuring out roots and wounds so I could understand and patch.

And here I am, 55 years old, and I am who I am. I know who I am and who I am not, and that’s not to say that I like every part of who I am — it’s just that I know. Like my friend with the beautiful laugh, I have worked hard and earned whatever there is good or helpful about me, and as CEO (and CFO and CTO and CIO and every other C-) of the Overthinkers Society, who I am now is largely the result of thinking hard about stuff. Maybe your work didn’t have to be so effortful and maybe you are naturally easier going than me with my overthinking ways, but it’s true for you too. At this stage in life, you are responsible for who you are. I am wholly responsible for who I am, good and bad and in progress.

There is still SO much work to be done, I’ll probably be working until the day I die. I still keep a metaphorical foot out the door ready to run. I still assume too easily that I will be abandoned, despite all evidence to the contrary. I still get too scared and freaked out in the face of others’ anger, especially when it comes out of the blue. I still struggle to say what I think if it is unpleasant. I still struggle to see how I really look. I still struggle with some of the old wounds and they still hurt. I struggle to hold my own self in the scene and will give myself away until I feel too depleted to keep going — do that to myself. I still get swamped sometimes with sorrow and while I’ve learned ways to manage it better than I used to, I’m not there yet.

But it’s OK, it’s the deal. It’s all the process, it’s all the path, and there is real pleasure in getting down the path because you get so much as you go. You learn what to hang onto and what to let go, who to keep around you and who to let go, what to strive for and what to let go (hmm…..lots of letting go). I guess that’s a point: you learn to let go, which is a major relief.

I love all of you beautiful works-in-progress. xo

 

planting trees

When I was in graduate school — like grad students will do — I and my colleagues saw our studies everywhere. When I was studying pronouns, it was all I could hear when I talked to people, all I could see when I read. When I took a course on psychosomatic processes I became unable to think about my health and well-being without seeing those processes at work. A concept that has a long(ish) history in social psychology relates to comparisons and how we use them to help ourselves. We use upward comparisons to motivate ourselves in an aspirational way, to see ourselves as part of a group we value (“yeah, we tennis players are amazing! Look at [insert name of better tennis player here]!”), though they can also serve to make us feel bad about ourselves of course.

Downward comparisons make us feel much better about ourselves. Well, whatever, at least I’m not like herCancer patients may observe others with the disease who are doing worse in order to evaluate their own progress and feel more hope for themselves. Well, we all do that, don’t we.

When I was in graduate school, my life was in a lot of turmoil, and big old land mine-type turmoil, too. It seemed like it was always something with me, always some disaster happening in my life, and I used to hurt my own feelings by saying, “Yeah, I’m everyone’s favorite downward comparison.” No one else ever said that to me, only I did.

I think about that a lot here, on my blog, especially when I write about things I struggle to do. I imagine that people who read such a post simply don’t struggle to do it — it’s a piece of cake for them, and perhaps some wonder why it’s so hard for me, and perhaps some even feel better about themselves, and some might even feel a tiny bit smug. I don’t let those thoughts stop me, though, because I also think that most of us do struggle with the same things I struggle with, to some degree, and I know how much relief I feel when I read another person’s thoughts about these usually invisible processes. Whew, it’s not just me. I always hope they’ve found the answer and will share it with me.

treeesAnd so I finally get to my point. A few days ago (which is actually when I wrote this and then scheduled it to publish today), I posted this status update on Facebook, you may have seen it: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today. I didn’t come up with it myself, I read it on some Buddhist website I should’ve kept and noted, but the idea just struck me so hard I wasn’t thinking clearly. It isn’t like it’s a new idea; there are so many ways to say the same thing — start today, start where you are, if you’d started yesterday you’d already be a day ahead, lots of ways to say it — but this tree-planting version captured my own struggle, and maybe you are like this too.

If I should’ve started yesterday, then big deal. Whatever, I’ll start today. Or maybe on Monday, or the first of the month (or year), or on the solstice, but shoot, whatever, I’ll start. It’s not too late. What’s yesterday in the scheme of it all. The problem is with those things I might’ve started twenty years ago because in the face of those, I’ll just throw up my hands. I should’ve made a pointed push to be a writer 20 years ago, but now it’s too late, I’m 55. I should’ve thought about what I really wanted to do with my life 20 years ago and thrown myself at it with all I had, but now it’s too late, I’m 55.

The thing is, 20 years ago I felt too young. (Well, maybe not at 35, but definitely too young when I was in my 20s.) So I’ve left myself in the position of being too young too young too young too young, OOPS! too old too old. I missed that one tiny moment when I guess I might have felt the right age. How silly.

I watch my daughter Marnie in awe. She is in her 20s but she takes herself and her work seriously. She sees herself as a real agent in the world. She applies for big things and gets them — the only way you have a chance, after all! She takes on the old, entrenched forces in the company she works for and makes a very big and quite visible difference! She creates gorgeous books out of her deep mind and heart, pulling something brand new into the world in her 20s. When I was in my 20s I felt too little, too inexperienced, too blank, too unimportant, too much a ghost, to stand up and do anything at all other than try to respond and react and get through my days. But not her. I’m sure, since she is a human being, she suffers doubt and uncertainty, but she just goes ahead anyway. I admire that so much.

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second best time is today. I can’t do a damn thing about what I did or didn’t do 20 years ago, or 10 years ago, or 5, or 1, or last week. I didn’t do them, but all the doors didn’t slam shut and seal over and become invisible. The second best time to do them is today, and I am so much richer today, with so much more inside me, so what is stopping me? Only me. Thank heavens for guides like Marnie.

I think I’m going to add a prong to my 2014 project. In addition to working on inner stability and extending greater kindness to the world, I’m going to strategically work on growing in my writing, and taking it seriously. The second best time to do that is TODAY.

the last of those anniversaries

There was a 17-day period last year that was the worst of my whole life, and I cannot imagine such a thing will ever happen to me again. Nearly my whole life crumbled under my feet, and very little was the same at the end of it; mercifully — an enormous mercy — I still had my precious children and I was still alive, but everything else was gone. My granddaughter. My daughter’s desperate longing to be a mother. My marriage. Where and how I lived. My dreams. Poof.

this was me then, a year ago yesterday. makes me cry to see all the sorrow in my exhausted face.
this was me then, a year ago yesterday. makes me cry to see all the sorrow in my exhausted face.

One year ago yesterday I boarded an airplane with three giant suitcases filled with clothes. I didn’t have a key to anything or any place. I flew away from New York, believing I’d never live there again. I left friends, hoping to stay in touch. I left a small number of books, planning to return to pack and ship them. And that’s it. Me plus clothing in bags. Been there before, never thought I’d be there again. (But I survived.)

One enormous loss was the belief that finally I’d never have to move again. I’d lived at the same address for six years, longer than I had ever lived at one address my whole life. Three times as long as I’d ever lived at one address, actually. My 80th move took me there, and I believed — finally, I believed — that I wouldn’t ever move again until I was dead. I fought my way to that belief, resisting allowing myself to believe it out of fear, fearing that becoming comfortable about that would make the pain unendurable if I lost it. But finally I did come to believe it. And the pain was in fact almost unendurable when I lost it. (But I survived.)

One year ago yesterday he drove me to the airport and spoke sharply to me on the way, making me cry even harder. He helped me get my three enormous bags into the airport and then turned and walked away, and I stood there in shock. (But I survived.) Here’s what I said about it last year:

Yesterday was machine gun fire, a giant rollercoaster, take your pick of metaphor. After getting an hour’s sleep, we left for the airport and wrestled my three giant suitcases to the airline check-in desk. Southwest Airlines agents are perky and seem to assume that everyone they encounter is a  happy person, going to a happy place (!) oh-so-happy! She kept apologizing for having to charge me for a third bag, and was insistently pressing on me about the trip while in my head I was screaming, I’m moving, these are all my clothes. This is my husband — we are leaving each other, I am moving, please stop. I sat alone at the gate for a very long time, stunned and blank.

Remembering all this brings the terrible pain back into my chest, the blankness back into my mind, the tears back into my eyes. Waiting for me in Austin was my beautiful and devastated daughter Katie, reeling and blank from her daughter’s funeral just a couple of weeks earlier. My solid and loving son-in-law Trey, reeling too. And they opened their arms, their home to me. They absorbed me with love, put their aching arms around me. There was so much to do — I didn’t have a fork, even. I landed at the airport around 1pm on a Saturday, and by 3pm that same day I’d rented my place and bought a couch. The next Monday Katie and I drove to San Antonio to pick up the car I’d bought.

Somehow, Katie and I bought all the things I’d need to make myself a home. Somehow she found it in herself to press me not to shortchange myself and just get junk, knowing it would eventually make me feel terrible to be surrounded by plastic, temporary things when I felt so temporary myself. Somehow she and Trey helped me make the transition two weeks after I arrived, leaving me to grieve alone in my new home, and leaving them to return to their own lives alone together to continue their grief. (And we all survived.)

A year ago yesterday I stood on scorched earth, a place I’d stood many times, a place I feared ever standing again, a place I believed I could never endure standing again. A year ago yesterday I and my life were saturated by loss and devastation. (But I survived.)

A year ago yesterday, one of those extraordinary serendipitous moments happened to me, as they frequently do. On the flight to Austin, I turned a page in the book I was reading and came upon this poem, the most perfect thing I ever could have read:

The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

The poem gave me strength and courage, as did knowing that Katie and Trey were waiting for me, and boy the poem was the truest thing ever. I was not done with my changes; I will not be, until I draw my last breath. I had so much pain waiting for me, when I thought I’d already endured more than I could. I had so much heartbreak waiting, when I thought my heart was already shattered completely. I had so much growth ahead of me, when I thought the root was dead, finally, killed by too much suffering at the end of a life of too much suffering.

What I didn’t know, a year ago yesterday, was everything. I didn’t know the pain still to come (so glad for that); I didn’t know the harshness January and February would bring me (so glad for that); I didn’t know I’d find such beautiful things in myself, I didn’t know how strong I am even though I thought I did; I didn’t know my life would become better than it has ever been, filled with so many people who would just open their arms to me and take me in. I didn’t know I’d build a home for myself. I didn’t know I’d be surrounded by people. I didn’t know I’d thrive. And I certainly didn’t know I’d find my way back in New York City regularly, I certainly didn’t know I’d find some way to stay connected to my husband, I certainly didn’t know (and in fact would’ve bet everything against it) that he would change so much, so deeply, and in the ways I most needed. I assume I’ve made similar changes. I didn’t know I would in fact get to travel — didn’t know I’d go to Java and Bali, didn’t know Sri Lanka would be in my future, a year ago. I didn’t know that from my place of such tremendous want, I’d end up with such enormous surplus.

Just goes to show you. It ain’t over til it’s over, no matter how it looks in the dark. Katie, Trey, thank you for the ways you gave ME a home and a safety net, and all your love. Marnie, Tom, thank you for your optimism and support, assuring me I would be better than I dreamed. All that isn’t limited to a year ago yesterday, of course — it came before and it continues after that anniversary, but when I was at my greatest need, you held me. For such an unlucky person I am the luckiest person in the whole world.

anti-artifice

Yesterday I was lucky enough to have lunch with one of my most beautiful friends — a beauty among beauties, inside and out. As we always do, after we caught up on the details of our lives, we talked about life, and our struggles with various things. I love friends who do this with me, getting down to it, not staying up high in platitudes, instead going down to where we both live.

Knowing what we do about each other’s early life, I think we look at each other and wonder How did you do that? How did you get out as beautifully as you did? Coming from that, how did you get here? The older I get, the more my question is motivated by fascination for the complexity of it all rather than a search for technique. Traci asked me what I might have needed to learn and it didn’t take me long to know the answer. My life has been a lesson in becoming and being genuine. As we talked, I thought about what an ongoing minute-to-minute struggle it has always been (and continues to be) for me to be genuine. And I care so very much about that; artifice isn’t my least favorite thing in the world, but it’s definitely in the top five.

My default stance is not to be genuine. As I told Traci yesterday, if you ask me what I want to drink I’ll say something easy, iced tea maybe, but I don’t want iced tea. I say that because I think it’ll be easy for you, or because I think you want me to want that. But what I really want is a glass of wine! And if I cannot even easily be genuine about what I want to drink, imagine how vast and widespread are my disingenuous responses. Who the hell am I, anyway?

Obviously, we all tell these little lies — social graces, greasing the social gears, whatever, and anyway, who cares if I’m not honest about what I want to drink. I don’t actually care so much about that myself. If it’s important enough, I’ll tell you what I really want. But what I do care a lot about in terms of being genuine is my real experience of trying to live, of trying to be a human being. I care about that so very much, because I struggle a lot. It’s not always easy, I’m burdened with a petty heart, with easy resentment, with a well of pain and envy, with laziness, and with grandiosity. All those things fight inside me, and I fight with them. I mostly win the battles, and I win them more often the longer I live; the battles get easier, and often now they’re skirmishes . . . but they’re all still right there.

There’s very little that is always true, except that I am always a tall Texas woman with an accent. And even that varies in truthiness — I’m shrinking as I age, I’m kind of equally a New Yorker, and I can squash my accent if I just have to when talking to Yankees. But I am not always kind or gracious or warm or open or generous or anything at all. I learn things through my experiences, but I forget them very quickly and have to re-learn them. I change, but slip back and have to make the change again. I think there has only been one lesson I’ve ever learned in my life that truly was a one-trial learning experience, and that was to tell people I love them when we part because we might not see each other again. I learned that one when my dad committed suicide and the last thing I’d said to him was that I loved him. And having said that saved me over and over and over in the aftermath. Otherwise, my learning is always in progress, my change is always in progress, my efforts are always in progress. So I guess I’d have to add that to the “always” list above: I am always a tall Texas woman with an accent, and always a work in progress.

trying to keep the mask off my face
trying to keep the mask off my face

Why does it matter, being genuine about flux, genuine about struggles? Like everyone else, I can put on a mask and be all shiny and put-together, I can present a semi-polished version of myself, though I’m not all that good at it. It makes me nervous, I get kind of sweaty and chattery. But I care so much about being as genuine as I can because we are all, I’m pretty dang sure, struggling to some degree. When a mother can confide that she doesn’t always like her children, when a wife can reveal that sometimes she just hates her husband with all her heart, when a person can give voice to the things they’re not supposed to say out loud, I have to believe that anyone listening immediately feels a little less alone. “Ah, it’s not just me! I don’t always like my son, he’s such a jerk. I mean, I love him, but ….” Or “Me too! I thought I was the only one who felt that way!”

here's one from PostSecret, on a sadly ordinary topic
here’s one from PostSecret, on a sadly ordinary topic

There’s nothing so terrible as being all alone with your secrets, and I’d bet that most people have the same old sad secrets, generally speaking. Or maybe it’s just that their secrets aren’t nearly as rare as they fear. That’s the genius and glory of PostSecret. I think we all feel so terribly alone inside ourselves at times, and in some ways we inherently are, of course, but not in most of the ways that push that feeling. All the things I struggle with are things you struggle with, too. But when I look around and see all the glossy people, when I read people’s posts saying things like “I have always known that it’s the most important thing that I be myself!” (or whatever), I think I’m the one who never figured it out. I think I’m the one who got the book without the answers in the back. I think I’m the one who will never get it, I guess, since I’m almost 55 and still struggling.

And I’d really rather have a glass of wine, please.

burst

burstThis is apparently how it works in nature. Dark cold winter nurtures the beginnings, and then suddenly everything bursts forth, pow! The fields are thick with spring flowers, vegetables start popping up, forsythia explode in brilliant color. In space, I gather matter compresses, pressure, darkness, then explosion into something else, something brilliant.

Human lives operate like that too, to varying degrees. This isn’t always true of course. Sometimes we go through periods of trouble — prolonged periods of trouble — and they whimper to a halt and “normal” life just kind of drifts back into view, and maybe small things are different, maybe we learn a little thing here or there, but mainly it’s just back to “normal.” That has definitely happened to me, and I’ve never paid attention but maybe that’s how it goes more often than not.

But you know, sometimes mysterious things were happening in the dark, seeds that had lain dormant for years, maybe your whole life, are germinating and you don’t know it. Maybe a puzzle you’ve been working on and you just can’t find that missing piece is laid out in the dark and something finds the piece for you, maybe your deep self, maybe something else, I don’t know how it works, I don’t have a theory. (But others do — it’s called post-traumatic growth, read about it here and here, for starters.) Maybe old ways of seeing things fall apart in the dark but it’s dark so you don’t see that they’ve crumbled, until the world turns and the light comes back. The world will turn, light will come back, and so you wait to see what the light will show. Ordinariness again? Or something else?

If you have ever experienced a deep insight, one of those ah! a-ha! moments, you know how miraculous they can be. Suddenly things make sense in a way that has eluded you, and what eludes you now is why they didn’t make sense before. I think there’s a way these things accumulate too, so as you grow and change, other growth and change happens more easily: this leads more quickly to that, you have a shorter way to go now. So the new insight that seems so stunning is possible only because of changes leading up to it, that’s why it suddenly makes sense. An insight I’ve recently had simply wouldn’t have been possible without all the life I’ve had right up to it. The ground was properly cultivated and nourished, the conditions were right, and there it was, brilliant and beautiful.

I’m writing this not simply to talk about my own insight (because it probably won’t make the same kind of sense to anyone as it does to me), but instead to talk about the process, the rhythm, the world of possibilities that exist after darkness. I certainly had a period of terrible darkness last fall and winter — not the worst that anyone has ever had, maybe not even the worst that have ever had, but terribly dark anyway. During the darkness I cried, I hurt so much, I tried to feel it and let it be, I ached and wailed, I tried to be still to see what might come out of it, and I tried to grapple with it in my way, which involved writing. I didn’t know that something good would come out of it; there were moments when I hoped something good might emerge, but there were probably many more moments when my despair was so deep I couldn’t imagine that.

daffies

But I feel like a giant field of daffodils, beautiful and light and impossibly wonderful. My recent insight that makes me the most grateful involves knowing myself and jealousy. I’ve always been such a terribly jealous person, but it wasn’t really about jealousy — it was more about my own deep certainty that I was bad, trouble, ugly, and that all my partner needed was to remember or see that and I’d be abandoned. Because duh. Who wouldn’t be better than me! Anyone, old partners, people passing by, anyone. I was talking to my beautiful and un-neurotic friend Janet the other day (and boy howdy, do I recommend that you have at least one friend who is not neurotic!) about her sometime-boyfriend Robert, and she said he’s insanely jealous. So I told her that I am too, and what it’s about, that it’s about my own terrible feeling of inadequacy. And she stared at me for a minute and then busted out laughing. She asked me why couldn’t I see who I really am? Why can’t I see everything I am? She said she hasn’t even known me that long and she can see it, it’s obvious to her. She talked about her own very unjealous feelings and said jealousy doesn’t keep her with someone (of course it doesn’t), that nothing will keep someone with you unless they want to be with you, and if they don’t, grasping and jealousy sure aren’t going to do that. I did always at least know that, and I knew that actually, it’s likely to drive someone away, eventually (which only adds to the misery of it). Janet just seems to know who she is and she’s confident in a very neat way – not grandiose, she just knows herself and likes herself, can say that she’s hot-tempered, all kinds of things, but all with a kind of acceptance, it’s who she is and she’s fine. Something about her straightforward questions of me, something about the way it seemed so ludicrous to her that I don’t see it, and something about the last few months and what I’ve been through, it kind of whacked me in the head in just the best way. I’m pretty marvelous, and all I can be is me.

So if you are in the dark right now, I hope this makes sense to you and helps you wait and watch. If you know someone who is in the dark right now, I hope it helps you help your friend in some small way. And if you’ve come out of the dark, I say hallelujah for you. And me.

life as a road

Yesterday was such a lovely day in my life. I worked most of the day, but took time out to run over to Katie’s to pick up my guitar and drop off some stuff, and Katie and Trey and I went to lunch together. Since the place we had lunch was relatively near my house, I just took my car to the restaurant, so I could head home and get back to work.

Of course in the car I listened to music, and well, music is the killer — or the savior, it depends. And I’m still just so labile and easily affected by things. I’ve always joked about my easy crying by saying that I cry when the wind changes directions and comes out of the south. It’s kind of true. Still, I’m usually not as all over the place emotionally as I am right now. I can see that I’m getting better, stabler, more OK, but I can still be moved to tears between breaths. In the car going to the restaurant, it was a one-two punch, then a one-two-three fancy move, then a one-two-three-four, as one song after another moved me around.

My sweet little Prius is outfitted with bluetooth so it streams music from my phone, which has just one playlist of my favorite songs of all time (282 of them….actually, there are more than that in my “favorite songs of all time” category, but that’s how many are on the phone). So I’m driving along under the gray, overcast skies we have today as the cold front* moves in, and BAM! A song I listened to over and over when Marc and I were falling in love. I sang along and bore it as long as I could, then I clicked next and WHAM! Riders in the Sky, singing “Texas Plains” and I busted out laughing and started practicing yodeling.** I let that one play to the end, and the next was Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which happens to be my song. I had an enormous insight a few years ago, listening to that song, that led me to a New York City tattoo parlor to get the Chinese character for hope tattooed at the bottom of my spine, underneath all the others. So I was crying, listening to that song. Then Spice Girls (shut UP) “Say You’ll Be There” which always makes me laugh hysterically and feel so happy I can hardly bear it. See what I mean? Isn’t that exhausting?? There were a few more, and they didn’t all alternate back and forth between laughing and crying songs, but they kinda did. Anyone watching me would think I was nuts.

One of the songs that played reminded me powerfully of an earlier time in my life (all of them are strongly associated with times of my life, that’s why they’re on the list) and it made me think of the road of my life. How it was being newly married at 21, how that felt, and who I was. How it felt holding my little baby Katie, who I was and how that felt, and how I understood my life to that point. Marnie. Will. College, so much music associated with that period. Always I’m trying so hard, changing and growing, trying to be squarely in it and often failing. Graduate school, who I was then and what it felt like to be me, undergoing a number of big transformations. Moving to Rochester, then to New Jersey, then to Manhattan to live with and marry Marc. And who I was then, and how it felt to be me, and what I understood of my life. A year ago yesterday, Marc began his 6-month hellish treatment; we’d just returned from Vietnam, Malaysia, and Borneo, and the end did not feel so near.

It isn’t that in any moment I think this is it, my life; of course I’m always aware it continues on into the future (at least, I hope it does!) and I have all kinds of thoughts and hopes and worries about that projection. But in yesterday’s experience of looking back at each of those landmarks, I had a sudden gift of insight about the whole of my life, and who I’ve always been, and how it has been to be me. And in that moment of insight, I felt like I’d landed so very softly on the top of a hill. George Orwell said that at 50, every man has the face he deserves. I like the face I’ve earned at this point; it has a softness, and my eyes are soft even though they’ve watched the fire and led me through it. 

So, to my asterisks:

* the “cold front” — yeah, today the high is going to be 52, after last week in the 80s. We’re even dipping down toward freezing tomorrow night! The last freezing day here in Austin was Feb 12.

** that’s right, I’m practicing yodeling. I’ve always wanted to yodel, but never had the necessary privacy to do the practicing. One of these days I’ll be the yodeling queen of the pillbugs! Whee!